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Wednesday, 13 March 2019

October's Blood

 Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
    A cool wind seeped through the woods. The trees creaked beneath its touch, stiff limbs wearied by the encroaching cold. A few more leaves were teased away.
   A rustle heralded her arrival; delicate feet tread over the fallen twigs and leaves, her fingers trailed softly, mournfully, over lichen-masked bark.
   She turned her grey face into the light that crept through the boughs.
   Just a few weeks ago it had warmed her bark-like skin. Just a few weeks ago it had enlivened the viridian roof of her queendom; the air had been gentle, laced with the colour and conversation of birds, and soft. Caressing.
   Just a few weeks ago.
   The bow of her lips sank further.
   Now, it was waning. Soon, the once-golden glow would fade to frozen, biting ivory. And her domain would once again fall still.
   "It will not last," a voice spoke behind her, small and silken. She did not turn towards the moth. "You cry every year."
   "Because it angers me."
   "It is Nature."
   "I am a skogsrå. I don't need you to tell me that."
   "You fear."
   "...I do."
   "But you are strong."
   "And they are vicious." Her slender, grey hand slipped from trunk. "The queendom - my­ queendom - is at risk. Every time the sun fades and forests drop their leaves and shadows, men wander in with their axes and flames. They take what they want, as though it belongs to them. As though we stole it. I cannot rest - I will not rest. The safety of these woods is my charge. My duty."
   She strode on, tail swishing irritably, the line of her plump, grey lips as hard as steel.
   The sun thinned in the coming weeks, just as nature decreed, and the skogsrå, Queen of the Woods, prepared herself for war.

   As the leaves drifted and the ice light flooded in, as the air emptied of rustles and squeaks, as hoarfrost and fog blanketed her world, she patrolled her domain.
   Her feet passed as light as a fox over the frost. Her shape was as invisible as a cat. Her eyes were as sharp as a falcon. And, when she found men, and axe, and fire, she struck as hard as a bear.
   The forest was hers to protect, and protect it, should would. For none but she could.

   Snow lay on the ground, the first of the fall, and early. Roots, soil, leaves, insects; all were trapped beneath the blanket, and the air itself was frozen still. Even time seemed to have been caught in its frigid grasp. But all was not dead.
   Men's voices, coarse and careless, rose above the muffling snow.
   Her sharp ears pinpointed them. She melted into the grey forest.

   The men moved purposefully, trampling hide and hollow without a thought, sharp axes slung at their hips, glinting in the callous snow. They stopped beside each tree, casting over them an appraising eye. Many were deemed unworthy; those unfortunate enough to hold their attention were marked with a single notch.
   The queen's lips curled in a snarl.
   The branch didn't creak as she leapt.
   Three men fell in seconds, raked, rent and ripped by wooden claws, and two more by axe blade, falling upon one and impeding another. Within minutes, the snow had turned crimson; thick, dark and ragged.
   And so she didn't see the shadow of a sixth pass across it.

   Agony tore open her eyes.
   White sunlight, above, below; all around. She hissed as it stung and ignited inside her skull, and wailed in shock and torment as blinding heat ripped through her back.
   She rolled herself over, a lifetime passing in seconds, onto lichen-speckled hands and knees. The snow where she'd fallen was golden with sap.
   But the surrounding light stole her attention from the rend through her hollow-bark back.
   Tree stumps did nothing to impede the careless, ivory sun.
   Nor conceal the bloodied footprints in the snow.

Words & Illustration Copyright © Kim Wedlock
Written for Neil Gaiman's 'The Art of Storytelling' class, lesson 8: Short Story Case Study
Image based upon visual of Hlífrún from The Devoted Trilogy


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